Book Review: Washington: A Life

By Jim Eagles

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Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow
Allen Lane $70

Washington: A Life. Photo / Supplied
Washington: A Life. Photo / Supplied

Commander of the Continental Army which won the American colonies independence from Britain, first president of the United States and principal architect of the new country's system of government: there's no doubt George Washington is one of the key figures who shaped the world we live in.

Yet how much do we know about this towering historical figure, or of his role in creating and shaping the future superpower? In my case - and, I suspect, that of many New Zealanders - embarrassingly little.

Far from being a sort of wooden saint, the Washington portrayed by Ron Chernow is an intriguing character. The stereotypically ambitious yet insecure scion of a modest family, he seems to have consciously shaped himself for greatness: cultivating powerful allies at an early age, studying etiquette, leading a lifestyle beyond his means to join the land-owning elite, learning to control his emotions so as to always seem in command, making full use of his impressive physique to create an impression and taking great care over his dress in order to look the part.

At the crucial meeting of the rebel congress at which he was appointed to command the fledgling army, for instance, he dressed in his uniform as an officer in the colonial militia, posed impressively, looked stern and said little, so that despite his mediocre fighting record he stood out as the only real military leader present.

As commander of the rebel army Washington lost more battles than he won and his strategic skills were mostly unimpressive. His great achievement was to keep his raggedy army together through that same determination to succeed, against all the odds and in spite of totally inadequate funding from the young congress, so the rebellion was never quite snuffed out. In the end, it was the British who gave up.

As the unifying figurehead of the war of independence, it was always likely Washington would become the first president. He clinched the position, however, by demonstrating a studied lack of ambition while behaving in presidential fashion at every opportunity.

Once in the job, Washington's experience during the revolutionary war meant he was convinced the new country needed a well-funded central government and a strong executive president if it was to hold together.

To that end he fought his former allies, like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, who thought true democracy would come from delegating as much authority as possible to state level and minimising the role of government.

On the whole Washington won and thus shaped the way the framework laid down in the constitution would work in practice.

What made this book particularly fascinating to me is the extent to which those formative years are reflected in the modern United States, with all its strengths and weaknesses, including bitterly partisan politics, suspicion of big government, horror of taxes, belief in self-improvement, fanatical defence of individual rights and extraordinary conspiracy theories.

As to the last of those, Jefferson seems to have been convinced that Washington was plotting to make himself king of the new country and his allies spread extraordinary tales to that effect.

Barack Obama would know just how Washington felt.

Jim Eagles is the Herald travel editor.

- NZ Herald

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